Over the coming weeks The Chamber of Commerce is sitting down with each of the major award winners from the recent Westpac Waikato Business Awards to find out what they did to stand out from the crowd. This weeks “Winners Insights” is with Martin Thomas, General Manager of Wintec Student Residence Trust, winners of the 2020 Montana Food & Events Non for Profit award.
It’s no surprise that student accommodation providers have been some of the hardest hit by the Covid pandemic. The loss of international students and nationwide lockdowns have contributed to major financial losses in the industry. Martin Thomas, General Manager of the Wintec Student Residence Trust, knows this better than most having experienced the unforeseen challenges and pitfalls that 2020 brought first-hand. The Trust remains dedicated to providing the best quality of pastoral care for their residents and continues to build upon the successful business practices that saw them awarded the not-for-profit award at the 2020 Westpac Waikato Business Awards.
“This was our first time entering the business awards and, as such, we headed in without expectations but found it to be a great experience,” Martin said.
“Being required to reflect on what we’ve done and where we’ve come from was a very insightful experience. On top of that, being able to benchmark ourselves against the rest of the non-profit industry ensured that we were fulfilling our duty of care to our residents to the best of our capabilities.”
Wintec Student Residence Trust, which trades as Wintec Accommodation Services, is a purpose-built student accommodation provider established in 1983 as the initiative of the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers wanting to ensure there would be appropriate accommodation for their children if they were to enrol at Wintec for study. Since then, the Trust has expanded to also cater to mature students and international students. The Trust has three different accommodation facilities designed to cater to a range of individuals’ needs.
“Our aim is to create a culture and community that supports our students and ensures that when they leave here they’ve been successful with their studies, successful with their social lives and leave with a wealth of great experiences under their belts and a more well-rounded person than when they came to us.”
Martin is used to facing unique challenges in the accommodation industry. As Wintec Student Residence Trust is a non-profit there is a constant challenge to operate within a competitive environment whilst also meeting the requirements of the original trust deed in a vastly different operating environment than when the Trust was first established.
“This puts limits on what we can do despite operating within an environment where our competitors are not similarly constricted. Our duty of care to our residents is our main priority and this guides our decision making in every way. There is a misconception that because we are a charity we do not operate with business rigor or that our status as a charity means we have a benefactor behind us. That is not true; all of our revenue comes from accommodation fees and any surplus is invested right back into provision of student accommodation.”
It is its status as a non-profit that meant Wintec Student Residence Trust approached the lockdown with a unique viewpoint. At a time when it seemed like many student accommodation providers were in the news for the wrong reasons, the Trust focused on what they could do to support their students. Instead of focussing solely on minimising the financial impact to itself, the Trust immediately waived the food cost from its weekly rent for students who returned home and discounted the remaining accommodation costs by 50%.
“This was something that impacted us financially but the Trust decided that charging full price to students who weren’t on site was not in keeping with our duty of care. It was a risk that paid off as we found in our annual survey that both groups of students - those who stayed and those who returned home - were equally happy with our communication, felt equally safe in their living situation, and all felt our pricing options were fair and reasonable. The feedback was immensely positive and all our students were grateful for the support and flexibility that we provided them.”
Martin paid tribute to the wider Trust team in light of the award.
“I would like to thank the whole committed team, including our governance, our management team, part-time assistants and the people that have come before us for their vision and their ideas that have gotten us to where we are today. I’d like to also thank the Chamber and Westpac for running such a rigorous and impartial judging process that is also educative and capability-building.”